On Deadline blog: That curbside parking space in front of my home is MINE!!!' | Off Deadline | Jay Thorwaldson | Palo Alto Online |


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By Jay Thorwaldson

On Deadline blog: That curbside parking space in front of my home is MINE!!!'

Uploaded: Jan 11, 2013

The current dialogue over parking requirements in downtown Palo Alto and other commercial areas echoes community debates and controversies that date back decades. There has been no clear resolution and even affected residents express differing views.

But one gut feeling clearly predominates in neighborhoods, especially (but not exclusively) those abutting business areas: "That curbside parking space in front of my home is MINE!!!"

The issue, usually referred to as "overflow parking" or "spillover parking," occurs when people who work in commercial areas decide to park all day in a neighborhood rather than in a time-limit "color zone" or parking structure, where they have to move their vehicles regularly or pay for permits or tickets. Besides, walking is a healthy activity, despite such cold, windy, wet days as we've had recently.

When the Palo Alto Medical Foundation decided to try to expand at its old site at 300 Homer Ave. its leaders ran headlong into some long-angry neighbors. They were resentful of PAMF employees who chose to park in neighborhoods and walk a block or two to the foundation. Employees and physicians were not allowed to park in the patient parking lot because one all-day staffer displaced up to 11 patients.

One resident of the hard-hit Addison Avenue area (where smaller homes often lack off-street parking) angrily confronted an employee she saw locking up her car -- an exchange I heard about when I headed PAMF's public affairs in the 1980s.

"There's a lot of angry bears out here," a Waverley Street resident wearing a Cal Bears sweatshirt to one PAMF informational meeting declared -- growled might be more accurate.

Former City Council member Yoriko Kishimoto (before seeking election) was once an upset neighbor, but primarily due to traffic concerns further south along Embarcadero Road. Another former council member, Dena Mossar, then worked for me at the foundation and was in charge of parking-lot enforcement -- we once towed a physican's car, after repeat offenses and warnings.

Ultimately, PAMF moved to its new campus at 795 El Camino Real and houses replaced the medical and research buildings.

Similar angry feelings about overflow parking have been expressed by residents north of University Avenue as well as north of the California Avenue business district, between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks.

Recently residents of the Crescent Park area of Palo Alto, near Newell Road and the old, narrow bridge over San Francisquito Creek (to the "Triangle" area of East Palo Alto), have felt the impacts of overflow parking from the Triangle. Parking restrictions along Woodland Avenue have driven some to park on Palo Alto streets near the bridge. Not having enough spaces within the apartment complexes, a number of residents are flooding, so to speak, the nearby residential streets in Palo Alto, with as many as 50 vehicles, according to one estimate.

So it really doesn't matter much whether the overflow comes from commercial or dense housing areas, or some other source.

For more than a few residents, it doesn't matter that a curbside parking space is actually part of a public right-of-way. The inconvenience of having to hunt for a parking space is a continuing irritant that affects visitors and relatives as well as residents. While residents may know intellectually that those are public spaces, feelings runs deeper, along lines of the gut-level, "That curbside parking space in front of my house is MINE!"

Nowhere in Palo Alto history was that more evident than 41 years back, when in early February 1972 the City Council approved a drastically expanded bike-lane system that would have covered 66.6 miles of city streets with bicycle lanes. (Aside: There actually was strong community interest in bicycling and bike lanes years before the late Ellen Fletcher pedaled onto city politics and the City Council circa 1977, although she did much to further biking in the community and beyond.)

The expansive 1972 system would have banned parking on both sides of the street for 45.6 miles, many of those in residential areas.

But just weeks later, on Feb. 23, the Palo Alto Times reported bluntly: "A 'skeleton' bicycle system has emerged from three weeks of flaying by angry Palo Alto residents who would have had their curbside parking banned under an initially approved 'Plan A' system."

"Plan B" cut the overall system to just 42 miles, with parking banned just on one side of the street on 13 miles of residential streets, plus 5 more miles in industrial areas.

"We're trying to de-fuse the strong divisive feeling," then Assistant City Manager Charles Walker explained, adding that he and then-Traffic Engineer Ted Noguchi were still both interested in feedback on the bare-bones system. Both men eventually recovered from their bicycle-battle scars and went on with their careers outside of Palo Alto, a bit wiser about folks' feelings about "their" curbside parking spaces.

The experience of four decades ago has faded, and the system has been tweaked and expanded to include the Ellen Fletcher Bicycle Boulevard and soon a sleek new bike bridge to the city's baylands.

Today few remember the intensity of feeling about parking spaces that became what I believe is still the single greatest sudden uprising of citizen revolt in Palo Alto's often turbulent political history of concern about growth, traffic, environment, diversity and, yes, overflow parking.

It is a lesson today's community officials and leadership might keep in mind as they fashion new parking standards for commercial and apartment areas, or even plan for rebuilding an old, scarred-up bridge.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.